in action

A few days ago, on a hot afternoon with not much else to do for entertainment, we saw the new Mission Impossible movie. A good one, but for the purpose of this post I want to focus on what this movie has a lot of, and that is action. 

Of course, distant voices whisper through the blogosphere, it’s an action flick for goodness sake.

Yes, that it sure is.

The opening scene (five minutes or so), is jammed-packed with action — some of it cliché, but most good enough to grab the viewer by the neck and keep her on that seat.  Keep the mind from wandering, yet my mind wandered way the heck off. Watching Tom Cruise run all over the place and do all sorts of impossible tricks while keeping his cool, got me to thinking …. hey, what about building action in a book?

After having written a couple of mystery novels (one published), having gone through edits with the publishing-house editor, and currently working on another mystery novel, there were a few things drilled into my skull over the years.

Deep breath, or if you’d like to take a break and grab a glass of water, or better yet wine … I’ll wait for you.

Okay, here I go.

An action scene isn’t just a car chase, a fistfight, or a hot-and-heavy sex scene. No. In my wandering mind, an action scene needs the pace cranked up to its most intense level to build tension, deliver emotional impact, and move the plot forward with one big punch.


So, how does an author turn scenes into heart-pounding experiences for the reader while building tension and emotional impact and advancing the plot?

Well, watch a movie like Mission Impossible, for one.

Or, in a book, keep descriptions to a minimum. The setting should be established before the action begins so we know where the action is happening. A winding mountain pathway during the night, a crowded street during morning rush hour, the prince’s secret boudoir, whatever the setting, it should be introduced before the action begins to limit the need for description.

When the action begins, my dears, an author only needs to mention the details that create the immediacy, urgency, or the sense of dread, panic, romance, or in short, the scene’s emotional goal.

That’s it.  Easy, no? 

Here is a short action scene from my book, Stranger or Friend:

     With his heavy boot on her back, he held her face to the ground. Shoved hard, as if to push her into the dirt.                                                          Desperate for air, Zoe tried to reach back, to claw at the boot. Her lips mashed against the rock, splitting open. Her teeth and gums grated against stone. Her mouth filled with a metallic taste. Blood, lots of blood. Why didn’t he just kill her?                                                                Frozen in fear and pain, she willed her mind to work. Maybe if she’d wait out the boot, if she’d keep her bearings a little longer … maybe she’d be all right.                                                                                                 But she was not all right. She felt a broken connection with her consciousness. She fought to keep her mind as one entity, while the boot squashed her face against the rock. Someone was crushing her skull. A distant part of her was shoved to a bottom where she sunk into her own spit and blood.                                                                                         Zoe struggled for a breath at the bottom of this pool, but darkness intruded. No sky, no trees, no way to tell which way was up.

The idea here was to keep the momentum going, show the character’s struggle while she was being badly hurt.  

While action is the lifeblood of mysteries and thrillers, I think we need momentum in any book, and that, my friends, means action.

What else have I learned? That I make a lousy movie companion, because my mind wanders to the parallels between the flick on the screen and books. All the time.


What say you, dear blogging friend?


Images credit:,




16 responses to “Action

  1. Very good advice about action and description. You don’t want to interrupt/slow down the tension of the action with description. And I loved Mission Impossible. :-)

  2. Ok, being Devil’s Advocate. I LOVED your description of Zoe’s experience… I felt bad for her, as I could feel her pain and panic. So as the author what do you see and feel in order to write what the reader sees and feels? What do you experience while you write that scene versus when I read it? ;-)

    • Gwynn, what a great questions. I gave dozens of interviews for the book, radio, blogs, but no one ever asked what I felt or saw when I wrote a certain scene. And it’s really a very interesting question. Writers are very visual beings, as you know, I’m sure, so I certainly ‘saw’ the scene developing. Especially after I wrote it and went over it again. As for feelings, so much went on prior to this scene.This happened at a certain turning point, so during the planning stage, I had already ‘felt’ it. Now, it was just a matter of execution, and it was the hardest scene to write. In the novel, this goes on longer and there is an element toward the end that shifts momentum several times, so I remember being exhausted at a certain point. Having to step away and let it be for some time. Funny, isn’t it, how writers ‘experience’ the highs and lows in the narrative/action scene/dialog. Thank you for reading and the comment.

  3. We also saw the latest MI on a hot afternoon and I agree it’s non-stop action. Since I also write mysteries, I am acutely aware of the need to keep the story moving. It can be tension in dialogue and relationships just as easily as physical action. I’m not sure I could write something that had continual action, sort of like MI. I and my readers would be exhausted!
    You picked a great scene from your book!

  4. As long as you don’t interrupt your friend and tell him/her your thoughts while watching the film, I don’t think you’re a lousy movie companion. You’ll have so many more interesting things to talk about after, too. That’s a good thing.

    I’m working on my action scenes. Or I will. When I get to that point in the story.

  5. Hi Silvia – I find myself thinking more about the story line and how it develops – even though I’m not actually authoring … it’s interesting how much seeps into our consciousness as we read and blog.

    Loved the Zoe part – and wonder how she’s going to get out … and survive that situation … the boot must make a mistake! But great action and I don’t really like the feel of my teeth on stone, or my lips split apart …

    Now I’ll go for lunch! Cheers Hilary

  6. My mind wanders too, Silvia, although, last night, my family saw The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the only other movie (besides Mission Impossible) currently playing that is rated PG-13. It was good enough to keep my attention. What frustrates me about the PG-13 rating, esp. in this case, is the unnecessary use of bad language and sex. All of that can be implied without actually doing it. Parents like me want to take their kids to movies they want to see, but when this happens, we squirm and wish we opted against going. Anyway, I wandered there. I think your example, and writing, are excellent. I am not good at writing many aspects of fiction, including action. It’s an art, no doubt, on in which you are clearly a master.


    • Yes, PG 13 might as well be rated R in some movies. My son is 11, but pretty mature for his age. Still, some movies push the envelope way too far. You are a great memorist, Elizabeth. I remember being fully absorbed by your prose and narrative. An amazing strength for any writer.
      Thank you.

  7. I think it’s also important (rom my reading perspective) to guve a sense if the duration of the action. The quick ka-boom of an explosion followed by scenes of aftermath. In Zoe’s situation, her terror and pain were not a split second; she endured for awhile, and you made that clear through your descriptive writing in the scene.

    • Yes, too much suffering can be too much, so breaking it segments is helpful. Very true, Sammy. Similarly, something moving too quickly fails to provide the proper picture. I thought the movie moved very fast in places, which is normal for the medium and genre. Happy that can be dialed in whatever direction in a book.
      Thank you for reading and the comment.

  8. Gosh, I enjoy certain “action” movies, but do not find it necessary to have a whole lot of action in the books I read. But I don’t dislike action, either. I have not really thought about it. I sure like watching series like Criminal Minds that have both some forensics and action in the story! Along with the team’s personal stories, too. :-)

    • Now, that’s what I really like in a movie (and book), that personal connection with the character. Without coming to ‘know’ and ‘care’ a little, the writer or filmmaker can put them though any type of suffering and the connection is not there. Great point, Denise. Thank you.

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